Hoggett Created Hard Knocks for American Idiot Cast

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(L to R) Scott J. Campbell, Van Hughes and Jake Epstein

London-based Steven Hoggett is the proud choreographer of two musicals opening this week: American Idiot at LA’s Ahmanson and Once at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway. The acclaim is enough to make any artist gloat. But Hoggett keeps his feet on the ground, choosing instead to follow the sage advice of American Idiot and Spring Awakening director Michael Mayer, who told him at the beginning of their production journey, “Nothing is guaranteed.”

Steven Hoggett

This time around, however, continued success for American Idiot is likely. Green Day’s rock opera-turned-musical scored 2010 Tony Awards for sets and lighting and a nomination for Best Musical, and the Los Angeles stop is only one of a string of U.S. dates. This is thrilling for a choreographer who had never worked on a show in America.

“I felt incredibly honored,” says Hoggett, regarding Mayer’s decision to tap the choreographer’s skills for American Idiot. “I did get elevated from Michael’s decision to pluck me from London and throw me into a room full of rowdy, testosterone-driven kids.”

At first, Hoggett felt just personally privileged. After traveling to Manhattan, however, and seeing firsthand how many people Mayer knew and had worked with, and hearing about the scores of people who had asked about his job, he was “absolutely delighted.”

“There were lots of people who were, a) very qualified, b) very exciting choreographers, and c) American — and maybe massive Green Day fans,” says Hoggett. “I was aware of having stepped to the front of what was a very prestigious queue.”

National Theatre of Scotland's 2007 production of "Black Watch" at UCLA Live

Relatively unknown in America, Hoggett has been one of the two artistic directors (Scott Graham is the other) of the London theater company Frantic Assembly for 17 years. But he was noticed by Mayer for his choreography of National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch, for which Hoggett was associate director.  About an elite Scottish military regiment that served as part of the British Army’s deployment in Iraq, the production made its US debut in 2007 at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, presented by UCLA Live, but Mayer saw it in the show’s subsequent Brooklyn engagement, at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  Watching the soldiers march intensely, Mayer decided Hoggett was the man for the job.

American Idiot is very angry,” says Hoggett. “It’s a vitriolic piece of work, and it’s very bruising.” The movements had to match the mood.

The first time the two men met was in London when Mayer was visiting on Spring Awakening business. Hoggett remembers their encounter lasting only 20 minutes. American Idiot had only been through stand-and-sing workshops. Mayer asked Hoggett to come to New York for two weeks to look at three numbers.

In retrospect, Hoggett admits he could not have predicted the long and prosperous road ahead.

(Front L to R) Leslie McDonel, Gabrielle McClinton and Krystina Alabado. (Back L to R) Talia Aaron, Nicci Claspell and Jillian Mueller

“It doesn’t matter what your piece is based on,” Hoggett offers. Sure, American Idiot sold over 14 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy in 2005 for best rock album. But the theatrical stage is a completely different playing field. “That show could have done badly in Berkeley [where it originally opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre], and it would have never been seen again. We knew it would play Berkeley for a limited run, and that’s all we were focusing on. Michael was very clear about that. He said, “˜Don’t any of you think of anything other than this because nothing is guaranteed.’ We stayed true to that.”

Hoggett sings the praises of Mayer and the entire American Idiot cast and creative team. Of the director, he says, “Michael was incredibly loyal. If he likes your idea, he backs it 100%, and if he doesn’t, he’ll tell you. So what ends up on that stage, you know it has been given his endorsement.” Hoggett also reveals that many sequences he created and loved were cut from the show. This was a tough process he had to wrap his head around.

“I sulked on the day,” Hoggett says with a smile, “then I had a cup of tea and was fine. I trusted Michael implicitly. I never questioned him — even an hour or a week later.”

(L to R) Van Hughes, Scott J. Campbell and Nicci Claspell

The lines of trust traveled in both directions. Mayer handed over the job of physically interpreting the lyrics of an American rock group to a London-based movement maker. This was a challenge Hoggett could handle.

“I liked Green Day,” he proclaims. “American Idiot was really big in the U.K.” But one word kept popping up that felt like an obstacle for Hoggett — musical. He had trouble visualizing how American Idiot would be transformed to fit into the form.

Part of this might stem from his own dance history. Hoggett came to dance “very late” with no technical training. Graham, the co-founder of Frantic Assembly, and Hoggett both majored in English literature. They decided to form the company after graduation and make it up as they went along. In all of their work, the daring duo make music their muse.

Luckily for Hoggett, not only did American Idiot power the musical, but the choreography permeates the show.

“I think it’s an absolute godsend for any choreographer to be involved in a show where your work is literally on stage every minute, rather than it being a song and then a scene, song and then scene,” he says.

His choreographic process for American Idiot seems similar to his company’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along mantra. Think potter’s wheel.

Steve Kazee and Kristin Milioti in Broadway's "Once". Photo by Joan Marcus.

“We’d all make material together, and we’d pick bits and pieces from different parts of the room,” says Hoggett. “It’s very much like throwing bits of clay. And eventually the bit stuck, and we’d all look at it and then start to mold it. I don’t like standing in front of the room and showing people steps.”

One main reason this collaborative process worked well for Hoggett was because the featured dancers are closer in age than Hoggett to the characters in the show and better able to tap into Green Day’s attitude — and because “they’re fantastic,” he says. “We auditioned formidable, physical performers. It would’ve been stupid for me not to make use of that.”

Surprisingly, no technical dancers were cast in American Idiot. That’s the way Hoggett wanted it.

“If people had too much technique, I don’t think that speaks to an audience truthfully. It speaks of a technique,” he reasons. “It’s beautiful and brilliant, but it’s not right for a show like this. The minute somebody has a lot of technique on stage, it starts looking like a pop video, and then we’re in trouble because it doesn’t work for the show. I looked for people that had real balls when it came to movement. We wanted the movements to be bruising and vitriolic. They had to be people who would go for that, and we found them “¦ lots of them.”

Gabrielle McClinton and Van Hughes

Hoggett continues, “I don’t think on a show like American Idiot there’s any point in making choreography. By that I mean something that has just an aesthetic; the principle is its visual aesthetic. I don’t know if that has a place in a Green Day show. In fact, I know it doesn’t because if you look at their music videos you don’t see people choreographically enhancing the visuals. So it’s about people, and also physical narrative. In lots of ways that was a huge part of my job –  to make sure the physical movement of the show was pushing narrative forward all the time. Without pushing it forward, the show would disappear into itself.”

Hoggett is impassioned when he speaks about his dancers’ commitment to the physicality of the show.

“There’s a moment where they all have to hit the floor quite hard,” he says. “I thought, they’re really tired. They’re not going to do this. They absolutely smashed themselves to the floor; every one of them. It was one of those moments when I had a lot of very different responses. One of them was, “˜Oh God, their knees and elbows.’ It was incredibly emotional. I’ve never seen a group of people commit to a moment so heavily. They absolutely pulverized the moment. I had expectations of a company being able to commit to something, and they blew it out of the water.”

Looking back, if he could change anything, there is one aspect of the show he might have considered doing differently.

“It’s very hard choreography, as in physically hard,” he says. “If I would have known it would have run for that long and for long tours, I might have made a softer show. They get bruises and injuries. I might have been a bit less bruise-tastic if I would have known it would have this life.”

On the other hand, “watching them go for it is very touching and humbling,” he counters. “There’s no way they can do a soft show. It isn’t built that way. It’s only 90 minutes. They throw themselves on and off stage. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know it would have this longevity.”

American Idiot, presented by Center Theatre Group. Opens tonight. Plays Tues-Fri 8 pm; Sat 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Through April 22. Tickets: $25-120. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

All American Idiot production photos by Doug Hamilton.

Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow